MUSIC: The Deeper Meaning Of Inspiring Music by Thomas H. Troeger

The Theology and Practice of Church Music

The Deeper Meaning Of Inspiring Music by Thomas H. Troeger

From: Music As Prayer

I recall delivering a series of brief homilies during a service of beautiful anthems, hymns, and organ works.  The occasion gave me an opportunity to reflect on why listening to great choral and organ music in a sacred space is not simply pleasurable but restorative and uplifting.  We commonly describe such an experience as “inspiring,” which literally means the spirit being poured into us.  I began reflecting in greater detail on exactly what happens to my heart and mind when I am inspired, when I listen to music with my whole being, giving myself over completely to the river of sound.

As I thought about the matter, I recalled an academic paper by the German scholar Alexander Deeg in which he shares the creative ways that many Jewish rabbis have interpreted the scriptures.  Deeg recounts in detail how the rabbis understood the story of Jacob, who dreamed of a ladder between Earth and Heaven, with angels ascending and descending upon it. (Genesis 28:10-22)  The rabbis’ insights about Jacob’s vision helped me find the deeper meaning of the word inspired and understand more fully why listening to beautiful music can be an act of prayer or meditation that restores and uplifts us.

The first thing the rabbis noted is that when Jacob lies down to sleep, the text (in the Hebrew version the rabbis used) says that he makes a pile of stones for a pillow, but when he awakes the pillow is a single stone.  The rabbis then came up with a number of possible explanations for what had happened.  One is that the individual stones had started arguing about which stone was most worthy to support the head of the patriarch.  But when the Heavenly vision appeared, the broken creation was restored as one stone.  In a similar fashion, when we listen to great music, the weary, warring voices that exhaust our energies are stilled and the fragments of the worlds in and around us are restored to a new wholeness.  This is what we mean by inspired.

The rabbis also noted that the Biblical text describes the angels as “ascending and descending” on the ladder.  They were surprised at the word order, thinking that angels come from God (descending) before returning to God (ascending).  But since that was the word order, they thought it might be a way of indicating that God has already sent Jacob strength, but he is not aware of it when he is awake.  Or perhaps the ascending angels represent the profoundest prayers and yearnings of Jacob’s heart that the descending angels then answer.  In a similar fashion, when we listen to great music, the profoundest prayers and yearnings of our hearts feel as if they are lifted upward into the presence of one who responds with descending angels.  This is what we mean by inspired. 

Finally, the rabbis noted that when Jacob decides to lie down, he does not choose the place because it is sacred ground.  The only reason he settles in there is because night has come and he has been on the run and is exhausted.  But when he arises, after the vision granted in his dream, Jacob has an astounding realization: “Surely the Lord is in this place – and I did not know it.”  In a similar fashion, after listening to great music, we often have a new and profounder perception of reality.  We realize dimensions of being that we had been oblivious to before: there is a wonder, a glory, and a beauty around and with us that we did not know until the music suffused our hearts and minds.  This is also what we mean by inspired.

May our music making inspire people; may our music gather the fragments of their lives and send up the deepest prayers and yearnings of their hearts and help them to see that the source of every good and perfect gift is with them is whatever place they are.

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